Award-winning actor Harvey Keitel is known for a wide array of films, including Martin Scorsese’s ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘Taxi Driver’ as well as Jane Campion’s ‘The Piano’ and ‘Holy Smoke.’
Born on May 13, 1939 in Brooklyn, New York, Harvey Keitel went on to become one of the most prolific actors of his generation, starring in dozens of films over the decades. His screen career started in the mid-1960s when he collaborated with young director Martin Scorsese, with the two going on to work on such pictures like Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver. After a string of lesser-known movies, Keitel returned to the spotlight with projects like Bugsy (for which he earned an Oscar nomination), Bad Lieutenant and the Jane Campion films The Piano and Holy Smoke. The 2000s have seen Keitel continue to be featured in an array of screen projects.
Background and Training
Harvey Johannes Keitel was born on May 13, 1939 in Brooklyn, New York. The son of a Romanian mother and Polish father who ran a Brooklyn luncheonette together, Keitel grew up in the Brighton Beach area and frequently visited Coney Island. Disinterested in school, he eventually dropped out of Alexander Hamilton Vocational School and joined the Marines at 17 years old. Keitel was then sent to Lebanon, earning his high school equivalency diploma while in the military and later expressing a deep devotion to the corps.
Upon his return to the U.S., he worked as a court stenographer for a time, saying he took the job because of the lack of speaking it required, but decided to move on once he felt ready to have a voice again. He then pursued acting, joining New York's Actors Studio where he studied under Frank Corsaro, Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg. In the mid-1960s he starred opposite Joyce Aaron in a revival of Sam Shepard’s Off-Broadway production of Up to Thursday, thus marking Keitel’s stage debut. He would later star in Broadway productions of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1975) and David Rabe’s Hurlyburly (1984).
Scorsese and De Niro
In 1965, Keitel responded to an advertisement posted by student director Martin Scorsese. The two immediately hit it off, having an innate connection, and thus began many future collaborations.
After Keitel had gained small parts in the TV shows Hogan’s Heroes and Dark Shadow, he and Scorsese made their onscreen feature debut with 1967's Who's That Knocking at My Door? The black and white film was groundbreaking in its content, telling the story of a young woman who was raped and her lover’s reaction to the crime. Film critic Roger Ebert later pointed out that the film relied on hand-held camera work and regular pop music for its scenes—generally unheard of for its time—while bustling with an energy reminiscent of John Cassavetes’ avant-garde vision.
Keitel worked as a production assistant with Scorsese on the documentary Street Scenes 70 (1970), which chronicled protests against the Vietnam War. The two followed up three years later with Mean Streets (1973); the film, which followed crime and turmoil in Little Italy, earned Keitel and Scorsese fame and critical acclaim and also introduced actor Robert De Niro into the equation, with the three having a tight camaraderie.
'Alice' and 'Taxi Driver'
Riding on this success through the 1970s, Keitel and Scorsese put out two more seminal films that offered unflinching cinematic portraits: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) starred Ellen Burstyn and Kris Kristofferson, and found Keitel portraying the abusive boyfriend of the title character who’s trying to make a new life for herself. Taxi Driver (1976) starred De Niro, Jodie Foster and Cybill Shepherd in a hallucinatory tale that found Keitel playing the pimp of a teen prostitute.
Other Keitel films that rounded out the decade included the period drama The Duellists (1977), co-starring Keith Carradine, and Blue Collar, co-starring Richard Pryor (1978). The actor continued to make TV appearances as well.
Despite this early success, Keitel's career took a dive in the 1980s with roles in mostly forgettable films, though his output continued to be prolific with projects like Saturn 3 (1980), with Farrah Fawcett and Kirk Douglas, The Border (1982), with Jack Nicholson, and The Pick-Up Artist (1987), with Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr. An array of foreign films also appeared on Keitel’s resume before he reunited with Scorsese for the controversial and esteemed The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988, with Keitel portraying Judas.
In the following decade, Keitel was ironically cast as a sympathetic detective in two 1991 films—Mortal Thoughts and Thelma and Louise, with the latter directed by Ridley Scott. Soon after, he earned an Oscar nod for his portrayal of gangster Mickey Cohen in Bugsy (1991) and subsequently landed roles in such diverse films as Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) and Sister Act (1992), with Whoopi Goldberg.
Campion and 'The Piano'
Keitel continued his trend of taking on gritty projects as seen with his role as the title character in Bad Lieutenant (1992) and as Victor the Cleaner in Point of No Return (1993), with Bridget Fonda. For Lieutenant, Keitel won an Independent Spirit Award for his depiction of a corrupt cop consumed by drugs and prostitution.
But Keitel took on radically different skin with his role as George Baine in Jane Campion's New Zealand-based drama The Piano (1993). Keitel starred opposite Holly Hunter, who played Ada McGrath, a married mute woman coerced by Baines into giving him piano lessons. A loving affair develops, with Ada’s emotionally and sexually repressed husband positioned as a counterpoint to Baines’s sensuousness.
“Jane has struck out in a way that has helped me to come closer to an understanding of myself and woman,” Keitel said about the director in a 1993 New York Times interview. He once again worked with Campion for the 1999 film Holy Smoke, which starred Kate Winslet and dealt overtly with spirituality, sexuality and gendered power plays.
More Screen and Stage Work
Throughout the 1990s, Keitel continued to display his versatility, giving solid performances in everything from the arthouse drama Lulu on the Bridge in 1998 to the goofy Adam Sandler vehicle Little Nicky in 2000. The new millennium saw Keitel continuing to chock up roles in film after film, including The Galíndez File (2003), the National Treasure movies (2004 and 2007), Little Fockers (2010) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).
Keitel also had the lead role in the TV series Life on Mars, which ran from 2008-2009, and returned to the stage in 2008, starring in the two-day Carnegie Hall production Jerry Springer: The Opera.
Keitel was in a long-standing relationship with actress Lorraine Bracco for a dozen years before they split. The two have a daughter, Stella (b. 1985), over whom they had an extended custody battle. (Stella is an actress as well, having starred as Keitel's daughter in Bad Lieutenant.) Keitel also dated Lisa Karmazin, with whom he has a son, Hudson. Keitel later married Daphna Kastner in 2001, and they have a son, Roman.